What age were you when you decided you wanted to be a pianist?
I began lessons after my primary teacher heard me play ‘The Bear Jumped Over the Mountain’ from my reading book, aged 8, on a tiny Casio Keyboard. Formal lessons quickly ensued with music soon encompassing all aspects of daily life. Growing up in rural Argyll, folk music was a large part of my upbringing although I also played church organ, piano for the local Amateur Dramatic Society and performed on piano/clarsàch at weekly ceilidhs etc. However, it wasn’t until I was 17 and applying for university that I realised that music was really the only passion that I wanted to pursue further. While my route to Music College was a little unconventional, and the result of a haphazard google search and a somewhat plucky audition, I was fortunate to have a consultation lesson with the late Mark Ray who agreed to become my piano teacher and the rest, as they say, is history.
Who has been the biggest influence on your career to date?
My two piano teachers while I was at the RNCM – Mark Ray and Carole Presland. Both really took the time to understand me as both a person and a musician and demonstrated boundless patience as they slowly deconstructed and reconstructed my technique. They viewed my time at the RNCM as a carefully planned four-year journey and instilled a confidence in me that anything could be achieved through hard work, dedication and…patience. They have both inspired my teaching more than anyone else, so much so that I frequently catch myself using expressions that were said to me during my lessons… ‘one more time….can you bare it?’
What do you think is special about a residential piano course?
Being a pianist can be a solitary experience, as so much of our time is spent undertaking solo practise. What’s great at Finchcocks is that we can come together, support each other and learn so much from one another both at, and away from the piano. No matter what the level of the course, there is always a real sense of community and sharing. Also, as so many of us lead such frenetic and stressful lives that it is wonderful to be able retreat, unplug from the world and immerse oneself in the timeless pursuit of deeper artistic satisfaction. Also, the food is pretty awesome…
As well as performing recitals and teaching, you also work as the orchestral pianist at Northern Ballet and as an ABRSM Examiner (!) How do you maintain this balance?
Very careful planning, a heavy reliance on google maps and the ability to survive on minimal sleep when needed! It’s all a balancing act in which you can go through periods of feast or famine. However, variety is the spice of life and I find that the constant change of focus helps me to grow into a more well round musician. Plus, I can now pack for a week in the smallest of suitcases and tell you all the best service stations around the country!
I almost went to university to study Law instead of music but in hindsight I think that was more due to my predilection for the 90s TV programme Ally McBeal. I think now I’d like to go back and study culture and linguistics, partly because I find the evolution and cross-pollination of language and culture fascinating and partly because I love to talk and would love to be able to do it in other languages!
The fantastic thing about the piano is the expanse of our repertoire. While there are certain composers with whom I feel more of an affinity, my choice of repertoire changes with my mood and the direction of the wind! That said, I always try to choose repertoire through which I feel I have something to say.
What should we expect from a course at Finchcocks?
Inspiration! When teaching a course, I aim to give the participants as many ideas, tips and new experiences as possible through a range of master classes, private lessons and workshops. Every activity is as interactive and inclusive as possible, covering topics such as warm-ups exercises, sight-reading, pedalling, accompaniment, improvisation, harmonisation etc. I don’t know of another course where one can play so many fantastic pianos, before experiencing freshly prepared meals from the in house chef and enjoying the sumptuous surrounds of the newly renovated boutique bedrooms all in a stunning English Manor. After each course, I keep trying to move in permanently but Neil is yet to acquiesce…
What’s next for you?
At my day job at Northern Ballet, we will be working on two brand new works; Merlin and Geisha in addition to a revival of Cinderella and The Great Gatsby – so I’ll have plenty of notes to learn there. I’m also recording a Duo Album with my sister, Gaelic singer Joy Dunlop and aim to finally finish a book of transcriptions that I started earlier this year. Concerts wise, you never know the phone might ring but I’m currently looking forward to two weeks of concerts in Gran Canaria. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get a few more stamps in my passport before the year is out?!
Guilty pleasure: Ru Paul’s Drag Race
Favourite musician: Joyce Didonato
Castaway disc: Schubert Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 – Mitsuko Uchida plays Schubert
Dogs or cats: Dogs. Whenever I stopped touring, the first thing I’m going to do is adopt a rescue dog and turn into one of those crazy dog people who take their dog everywhere….